BY TONY DUTROW
PITTSBURGH - The Ohio Bureau of Employment Service denied unemployment benefits to Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel strikers in Ohio November 22. Some 4,500 members of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) hit the picket lines in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia October 1, after Wheeling-Pitt refused to discuss restoring the pension plan taken away following its 1985 bankruptcy. That plan, called a defined benefit plan, requires the company to guarantee a monthly benefit for retirees. Such a plan is now in effect at all other unionized integrated steel mills in the United States.
In 1985, the Wheeling-Pitt bosses seized upon a favorable federal bankruptcy decision to attempt to impose an inferior contract on thousands of steelworkers. This resulted in an 89- day strike, the first in basic steel since 1959, and the only response up to that time to the massive restructuring of the steel industry that led to the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs in the early 1980s.
At that time, unemployment benefits were granted to strikers in Ohio and Pennsylvania, while the state of West Virginia balked. Protests in West Virginia, many including United Mine Workers members, forced the state to grant those benefits.
The West Virginia Board of Review has tentatively scheduled a hearing for December 17 on requests for unemployment benefits for 735 workers at three Wheeling-Pitt mills in that state.
On the day of the Ohio unemployment ruling, a press release from the USWA stated, "We will appeal this decision by the state of Ohio, and feel that Wheeling-Pitt management brought about this dispute with its unreasonable demands.... This decision has no effect on our stand in the labor dispute. The workers at Wheeling-Pitt have worked hard to make this company profitable, and deserve to have a fully funded pension."
In his ruling, Hearing Officer Fred Newsome declared, "The evidence discloses that [Steelworkers] became unemployed Oct. 1 when members of the [USWA] walked off the job, set up pickets, and engaged in work stoppages." His statement was quoted in the November 23 Herald-Star, published in Steubenville, Ohio.
On November 5, 500 strikers jammed in to the hearing room to voice support for union's position that the company refused to bargain in good faith. The union testified that the company ended all negotiation on pensions after September 27 and walked out of the talks hours before the strike deadline.
Company officials were forced to admit at the hearings that following a two-day strike in 1994, they did agree to discuss restoring the pension plan in this year's talks.
Dave Langley, who works at the Follansbee coke mill and attended the hearings, was skeptical about winning jobless pay. "I think they've already decided against us," he said after the hearings.
Russell Westling, who works at the Mingo Junction mill in Ohio, said, "We're hopeful for a positive decision. Whatever happens here, the rest of the steel industry is going to want it."
Westling pointed out how the local media constantly parrots the company's figures on what workers made last year. These were higher than usual "because of all the forced overtime," he noted.
In fact, Thomas Helsinski, general manager of the huge mill, admitted that the forced overtime to produce surplus steel coils was "just a matter of good business" and part of a "contingency plan in the event of a strike." Further, the union noted that coils were unmarked and warehoused in locations outside the mill. When the union asked if warehoused coils were being sold, the hearing officer ruled it out of order.
On October 30, the Monessen Valley Independent reported that 100 strikers from Local 1187 in Allen Port, Pennsylvania, set up an informational picket line at the USX Irvin works, near West Mifflin, Pennsylvania.
According to the article, the Irvin works ran 9,000 tons of steel for orders produced at the Wheeling-Pitt Steubenville mill.
Mickey Forte, president of Local 1187, who was interviewed in the article, explained that the USX plant manager had agreed that no work previously destined for the Allen Port finishing mill would be run by Irvin works.
Forte explained that pickets also stopped a USX truck from going into American Oxide Corp., located next to the Allen Port mill. The company recycles acid used in the processing of steel coils, and pipes it directly into the Allen Port mill. The truck that attempted to cross the picket line was laden with spent hydrochloric acid destined to be recycled and returned to USX.
Amrox has laid off half its workforce due to the strike at Wheeling-Pitt, its major customer, according to Forte.
The company, in full-page ads printed in newspapers throughout the region, continues to trumpet the lie that the union is unwilling to negotiate.
James Wareham, Chief Executive Officer of the Wheeling- Pittsburgh Steel Corp., in the November 13 Wheeling Intelligencer, said the company has "no intention whatsoever" of agreeing to the pension plan the workers are fighting for.
In a similar vein, Wareham told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette October 9, "This company has been successful in the 1990s by applying '90s-style solutions to the problem." He added, "We are not well served to rely on the [union's] standard pension format of the past." The pension plan the union is demanding would guarantee workers a monthly retirement check and the ability to leave the mill after 30 years worked with enough to live on. The company's plan ties its pension to profits, and doesn't require it provide the difference if the plan loses money.
Fund-raising events for the holidays are being planned by the unionists, as they head into the seventh week of the strike.
On November 30, an all-day "Battle of the Bands" dance and concert is being held in Tiltonsville, Ohio. The concert will benefit the "Kids' Christmas Fund." For information on this event, call USWA Local 1223 in Yorkville, Ohio (614) 859-4108.
The Local 1190 Women's Committee in Steubenville is planning two events that will draw solidarity from working people. On December 7, the local is organizing an auction of items donated to the strikers, and on December 14, a craft show will take place. Both events take place at the union hall and will benefit the "Christmas for Children Fund Local 1190 Campaign." For information or donations call USWA Local 1190 at (614) 283-3356.
Tony Dutrow is a member of the USWA in Pittsburgh.
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